Born in 1955, Carol Shaw is from Palo Alto, California. The daughter of a mechanical engineer, she had little interest in dolls as a kid, and preferred to tinker with her brothers’ model railroad layout. Shaw first became interested in computers when she discovered she could play text-based games on them during a high school computing class. She excelled in mathematics, and decided to pursue a bachelor’s in Electrical Engineering and Computers at the University of California, Berkeley. She then earned a master’s degree in computer science. This was unprecedented in the 1970s, and in an interview with “Vintage Computing”, Shaw said she ignored implicit gender barriers and pursued what came to her naturally.
Shaw moved from academics to industry, taking a job as a microprocessor software engineer at Atari. It was one of several offers but Shaw took the job because she said it looked like fun and she could get paid to play games. At Atari, she worked on a game called Polo as part of a promotional campaign for Ralph Lauren and then on 3-D Tic-Tac-Toe, the first commercially released game designed by a woman.
Today, dozens or hundreds of engineers design video games. When Shaw was at Atari, one person would do the entire game: the design, the programming, the graphics and sound. With this work, Shaw became known as the first female video game designer. She worked for six years at Atari and Activision, and created a number of successful games and programs, including Video Checkers, Othello, Happy Trails, and her most popular game, River Raid.
After this, Shaw worked for Tandem Computers for another six years through 1990. Then Shaw’s husband changed jobs and the family realized that Shaw’s salary would no longer be required for the family. Since her retirement in 1990, she has focused on volunteer work, including for the Foresight Institute that eventually resulted in a part-time paid position as Chief Information Officer, which she continued to do until 2001.
Written by Nicole Hutchison